Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

Director Nitesh Tiwari on courting controversy in 'Chhichhore': 'Do I stay true to my story or be politically correct?'

Tiwari's new film tells the story of seven young friends as they navigate college and hostel life – and there's a reason it lacks female actors

Sushant Singh Rajput is the male lead in 'Chhichhore', which follows seven young friends as they navigate college and hostel life. Fox Star Studios
Sushant Singh Rajput is the male lead in 'Chhichhore', which follows seven young friends as they navigate college and hostel life. Fox Star Studios

For a storyteller, drawing from your own experiences can be tricky. Is there a way to determine whether a story arc or character’s journey is objectively interesting, or simply a beloved-but-boring remnant from the past?

It’s a question that director Nitesh Tiwari often found himself grappling with while working on the script for Chhichhore, which is released in UAE cinemas today. Set in an engineering college in India, the film tells the story of seven young friends as they navigate college and hostel life, and band together in later years when tragedy strikes two of their own.

It is Tiwari’s attempt to capture the drama, sporting rivalry, heartbreak, and humour that define the average Indian college experience, juxtaposed against the rigours of the real world that lies beyond the gates of the university.

What is 'Chhichhore' about?

Tiwari, a graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, borrows heavily from experiences from the four years he spent there. “I thought it would be interesting to showcase the life engineers lead in a hostel, but I felt it needed to be more than a random collection of funny episodes.

"For me, the story is the soul of a film, and I like taking my time to write it. It took my writers and me some time to come up with a story with a purpose,” Tiwari tells The National.

Tiwari is returning to the director’s chair after a three year hiatus. He last helmed the staggeringly successful Dangal in 2016 — the film went on to become the highest grossing Hindi film in history, as well as the highest grossing sports film in the world, making over Rs2,153 crores (Dh1 billion) worldwide.

Nitesh Tiwari, right, drew from his own college experiences for the movie. Fox Star Studios
Nitesh Tiwari, right, drew from his own college experiences for the movie. Fox Star Studios

Naturally then, expectations for Chhichhore are high. After Dangal’s success, Tiwari could have had his pick in terms of casting and budgets, and yet he’s made Chhichhore on a relatively modest budget of Rs 70 crores and with an ensemble cast that decidedly lacks Dangal’s star power, which had Aamir Khan in the lead role.

Reverse ageism in Bollywood: older superstars are routinely cast in young roles

Chhichhore stars Sushant Singh Rajput of MS Dhoni: The Untold Story fame, and Shraddha Kapoor, who was last seen in the trilingual smash-hit Saaho. Rajput and Kapoor are joined by Varun Sharma (Fukrey), Prateik Babbar (Mulk), and several others.

“Every character in Chhichhore has a reason for existing, and I’ve tried to do justice to each one’s journey. I wanted a cast that worked together as a group, while also delivering a strong performance individually. The film moves back and forth in time a lot, so I needed actors I could shave and add years from without it looking odd,” says Tiwari.

Varun Sharma plays a character called Sexa. Fox Star Studios
Varun Sharma plays a character called Sexa. Fox Star Studios

While that might seem like baseline logic, this line of thinking is so rare in Bollywood, it’s positively refreshing. Bollywood is notorious for routinely casting superstars – especially the three Khans, who are all well over the age of 50 – in roles that should have been played by far younger actors.

Directors like Tiwari – not blinded by the allure of big-ticket names or the promise of grand budgets – are a small but growing breed. The success of script-backed films like Bareily Ki Barfi, Badhaai Ho, Andhadhun, Raazi, Tumhari Sulu and several others – made on small budgets and without big-name superstars who were once considered indispensable if one wanted a successful opening – can be credited for this change.

Bollywood's portrayal of women has also come under fire

The audience’s rejection of big stars is not the only big change in Bollywood in the three years since Tiwari’s last directorial venture. In the last couple of years the Indian film industry has often found itself being held accountable for its portrayal of women and the message it is conveying to impressionable, hero-worshipping fans.

Shraddha Kapoor is one of the few female actors in the film. Fox Star Studios
Shraddha Kapoor is one of the few female actors in the film. Fox Star Studios

Commercially successful films like Kabir Singh and Arjun Reddy have been widely panned for glorifying violence in the name of love and romance. More recently, Saaho was criticised for treating its leading lady like a prop. Tiwari’s own Dangal raised eyebrows for its disproportionate emphasis on Khan’s character in a movie about two female wrestling champions. In such an environment, it’s tough not to notice that Kapoor is the only female character to be seen in Chhichhore’s almost three minute-long trailer. But Tiwari explains the absence of women as a commitment to authenticity.

“When I studied engineering, the ratio of male to female students was 40:1. Not much has changed even now,” he says. “Should I stay true to the setting or be politically correct?”

It’s a hotly debated argument in Bollywood right now, with seemingly no correct answer.

“Ultimately, every director has to make the film that makes most sense to him [or] her. I will always stay true to my story. That’s the best I can do, because I’ve realised that you can never make everyone happy.”

Having said that, Tiwari believes that in a medium as powerful as film, it’s important to continuously introspect.

“I believe in taking responsibility for my work. In Bhoothnath Returns, I axed a scene where a child character justifies dropping out of school. In Dangal, I added a scene where the father tells the mother not to feel ashamed for not birthing a son – it’s not her 'fault', after all. Why should not having a son be construed as a misfortune at all? But within his reality, it makes sense. He has a dream that he truly believes can be realised only by a son. I ask again, should I stay true to my story or be politically correct?”

Updated: September 5, 2019 11:54 AM

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